Director: William Oldroyd
Cast: Florence Pugh, Cosmo Jarvis, Paul Hilton, Naomi Ackie, Christopher Fairbank, Golda Rosheuvel, Anton Palmer
MPAA Rating: (for some disturbing violence, strong sexuality/nudity, and language)
Running Time: 1:29
Release Date: 7/14/17 (limited); 7/21/17 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | July 20, 2017
The story of Lady Macbeth plays like an old-fashioned melodrama of a woman, trapped by a loveless marriage in a physical and emotional prison, whose deepest desires are awoken by forbidden love. It's set in England at some point during the 1800s. The primary locations are a grand manor, the estate upon which the house lies, and the forest and moor that surround it (because it's not a proper English melodrama if there are no moors involved). We think we know where this story is going, as the husband leaves on business, leaving his new wife to explore the freedom of the outdoors and of her sexual appetites.
We think we know, even when she blocks a doorway with a chair to prevent one of her oppressors from coming back into a room. We think we know for certain, up until the point that the man on other side of the door starts yelling for help through his choked breath.
At that point, the film becomes a distortion of the romantic melodrama. Everything has prepared us for a revolt by Katherine (Florence Pugh) from the start. Her love of the outdoors has been hindered by Alexander (Paul Hilton), her new husband, who insists that she remain in the house. The large shutters on the windows bar any light from coming into the house, and even when they're opened, the loud act of opening them seems like an insult. This is all of the outside world that Katherine will be afforded.
As soon as the husband and his father Boris (Christopher Fairbank) are away, Katherine opens a window to take in the breeze. She goes outside, spending the day walking the heath without any worries. There's a huge jump, obviously, between going to a long walk and what has happened to result in the man loudly dying behind the door, but it all comes from the same place: a revolt against repression, driven by passions that are going unfulfilled.
There's a twisted sense of logic to it, and that makes this story, adapted by Alice Birch from the novella Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk by Nikloai Leskov, engaging—even as the story follows that cruel logic to its inevitable result. It may be a large leap between a walk and a murder, but once this character has done the difficult part, what seemed unimaginable only becomes easier.
The story's logic remains in the realm of the melodrama for a bit. Katherine has been "bought," as Boris puts it, to be Alexander's wife. It is instantly a loveless and, soon enough, sexless marriage.
When they are finally alone in their bedroom, the husband orders his new bride to undress. He stares at her for a moment before extinguishing the lamp on the nightstand and removing his robe. The next part should be obvious, but instead, Alexander gets into bed with his back facing Katherine. In a later nighttime encounter, he orders Katherine to turn her back to him, as he sits in a chair. There's an unmistakable sound coming from his side of the room. She has been denied freedom through this marriage, and now, her husband is even denying her the possibility of marital pleasure, greedily hording it all for himself.
The answer to this desire within her comes from Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis). He's a worker on the estate, whom Katherine catches abusing her handmaid Anna (Naomi Ackie), who becomes privy to all of Katherine's impulsive dealings and—in a turn that is only plausible in material such as this—is literally rendered mute by them. The affair between Katherine and Sebastian begins roughly, with a nighttime scene in Katherine's chambers that plays as a violent mirror to the ones between her and Alexander. The rendezvous becomes consensual—more forceful on her part, even.
Boris returns, suspects the affair, and locks Sebastian in a stable. This will not do for Katherine, who demands Sebastian's release. Shortly after, we end up with the first of a handful of bodies.
The film takes no delight and only a little satisfaction in these deaths. The little satisfaction comes from the staging of the scene with the chair against the door, particularly in the way Katherine goes about having breakfast and making small talk with Anna while the muffled sounds of a dying man fill the room. There's also something morbidly amusing in how the story, having run out of potential victims, conjures up at least one more. It's far less amusing once the potential part of the situation looks to be more probable.
Director William Oldroyd maintains the style of respectable period piece throughout—no matter the circumstances, whether they be cold-blooded murder, the build-up to that inevitable conclusion, or some ordinary, day-to-day happenings on the estate. It seems like the obvious choice at first, since the minimalistic approach emphasizes the heightened story and character elements. As the story becomes darker, that minimalism remains the same, but as a result, it has taken on a different aura—cold, heartless, devoid of passion. It at least gives us some distance from the character, too.
That's the major turn—how the central character, filled with so much passion, suddenly becomes almost indifferent to what she is doing and what she is manipulating others to do. It becomes as commonplace as her daily routine, and Pugh is chilling in the role. Lady Macbeth offers no sympathy for Katherine, who later takes advantage of the status she has revolted against, but neither does it provide any condemnation. In the film's view, all of this—how oppression is a cycle—is inevitable.
Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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